The deadline for entries in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search was fast approaching and Jin-Loo Lee couldn't seem to concentrate.
The soft-spoken high school senior from Oxon Hill had spent seven months researching specific binding between soybean plants and soil bacteria. Now he felt discouraged and frustrated because he had to cut short his experiments to enter the competition. Finally, he forced himself to write the required paper explaining his methods and results.
"I did it in one weekend," he said. "The weekend it was due. I got it in at 10 p.m. and it was due at midnight."
That was on Dec. 15. One month later Jim, as his friends call him, was notified that he was one of 40 winners in the prestigious nationwide talent hunt." "It was a total surprise. I didn't expect it at all," he said. "I never won a prize this bag."
Last weekend, Jim and 39 other high school seniors from around the country, including two from Washington to exhibit their award-winning projects, meet past winners and do the town.
The young scientists were treated to a Sunday night performance of "The King and I" at the Warner Theater and on Monday paid a visit to Capitol Hill, where they were congratulated by and photographed with their senators and representatives. "I was hoping I could meet Ronald Reagan," Jim said.
Jim admits he was a bit in awe of some of the other winning projects, which bore titles such as "Genetic Linkage in Acinetobacter calcoaceticus" and "The Effect of Interferon on the Oxidative Metabolism of the Macrophage."
This year nearly 1,000 applications were received. A panel of eight judges evaluated the entries for originality and creativity. The judges selected 300 students for honors and 40 for cash and scholarship awards.
At a Monday night banquet at the Mayflower, 10 of those 40 received scholarships ranging from $5,000 to $12,000. The others, including Jim and his counterparts from Virginia, were awarded $500 cash prizes.
Jim learned of the Westinghouse event from his brother Myung-Moo, who was among the top 40 two years ago. (There of this year's winners are brother or sister to previous winners.)
Last summer, Jim enrolled in a summer internship program sponsored by American University. Although his interest was in medical research, Jim ended up at the Beltsville Agricultural Research Center.
"My advisers gave me a bunch of literature to read and I came across this thing on specific binding," he said. "I was wondering how in the world soybean roots could recognize specific kinds of soil bacteria."
Jim spent the entire summer studying specific strains of the bacteria -- rhizobium japonicum -- and how they intereacted with a particular type of soybean plant.
"I was studying the symbiosis between soybeans and nitrogen-fixing bacteria," he said. "The ultimate goal for the studies is to get the best combinations -- the bacteria that fixes the most nitrogen and the soybean that gives the best yield." For soybean farmers, this would mean saving money, since the bacteria would do the job of fertilizers, Jim explained.
Summer ended and Jim returned to Friendly Senior High School in Oxon Hill. He worked on his project after school and on weekends for another four months.
Jim's research disproved a controversial theory that this particular strain of soybean "recognizes" and binds to the nitrogen-rich bacteria. The notion eliminated, the next step wuld be to find out exactly how and why the binding occurs. It may lead to efforts to "incorporate more efficient bacteria in the soybean in place of inefficient bacteria." Jim said.
Jim and his friend, Mike Sullivan, stayed up until 2 a.m. one day last week, putting the final touches on his display, which was exhibited over the weekend in the Great Hall of the National Academy of Sciences. "Since I have such terrible handwriting, he wrote it up for me," Jim said.
Jim was born in Seoul 18 years ago. His family moved to Prince George's County when he was just a year old. He attributes his interest in science to his father, a physicist who "constantly had an influence on my attitude toward science." Jim says his other major influence has been Albert Schweitzer "for his complete dedication to science."
Until he won the "Westinghouse," Jim's only science awards were a grand prize in his high school's science fair and a second prize in the county science fair.
At Friendly, he is a president of the National Honor Society and a member of the math team.
"You never have to assist him," said Pam Hanrahan, Jim's science teacher at Friendly. "He goes on his own. He seems to absorb everything you offer." His winning of the award "speaks highly for Prince George's County schools," he added.
Like Albert Schweitzer, Jim also loves music. He has been playing the violin for 11 years. "It's mainly just a hobby for me," he said. "It me when I play."
After graduation, Jim hopes to get a summer job as a lab assistant and then go on to Brown University to study medicine.
"I'd like to be an MD, to practice and do research at the same time," he said. "Agricultural research is interesting, but I prefer studying human beings. My theory is that man should know more about himself before going off and studying other things."